Head of Business for NZME

Fran O'Sullivan: Reading between the lines

Prime Minister Bill English. Photo / File
Prime Minister Bill English. Photo / File

It didn't take an Einstein to get who Bill English was really talking about when he delivered a short message at a Chinese New Year dinner about how international relations work better in an environment of mutual respect.

English did not have to mention Donald Trump.

Earlier speakers - particularly David Wang the chairman of the Chinese Chamber of Commerce which was hosting the event - did that directly by talking about the developing protectionist stance by the Trump Administration. China was in favour of "free markets", Wang, who is also chief executive of the Bank of China in NZ, underlined.

When it got to English's turn, the prime minister made the point that the immigration controversy was at a time globally when there was a lot of challenges about how nations dealt with differences and the risks entailed.

"New Zealand will remain true to its values," he reassured the audience. "That it is open to trade; open to investment but most importantly open to people who want to come here and share with us the fantastic economic outlook we have and the amazing environment we get to live in and our cohesive communities."

The Prime Minister was clearly not going to aim a direct shaft at Trump no matter the Opposition urging and baiting. First that is not English's style. Second, there is nothing to be gained for New Zealand when the most important issue - at this stage - is to ensure our citizens (particularly dual citizens) are not impeded when it comes to entering the US amidst the current immigration furore.

It's debatable that any direct criticism was likely to scuttle the pending phone call with the US president.

Though New Zealanders - including business people who travel to the US frequently - will be wanting a clear reassurance from English after his call; not simply flannel.

Unlike the prime minister, former Labour politician and now Mayor of Auckland Phil Goff was under no such political obligation at the dinner.

Goff - who opened negotiations on both the China FTA and the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) when he was Labour's trade minister - welcoming China's outwards stance saying he wished that was the case with the US. "I think it is a terrible step backwards for a country that should be at the leadership front in globalisation to turn inwards as the United States has done under the Trump presidency and to look toward protectionism.

"We've been there. It didn't work. China has been there. We are working together as global partners and I welcome that very much."

The varying stances underlined how fortunate New Zealand is have a good relationship with China at both people to people and economic levels.

It would be disastrous for New Zealand if China were to put up protectionist shutters in a global trade war.

But the rhetoric from President Xi Jinping down has been supportive of the global trading system.

Beijing - via Ambassador Wang Lutong - also underlined that New Zealand and China had a "model relationship."

The NZ Embassy in Washington was yesterday seeking clarification on just how NZ passport holders would be affected by the temporary immigration ban.

The embassy has hired Trump insider Stuart Jolly to lobby the US Congress and the Trump administration for E1 and E2 business and investor visas, which allow companies operating in the US streamlined visa access (including staff). It is an area where NZ business is disadvantaged alongside other nations like Australia.

Jolly - who was Trump's campaign field director during the Republican Primaries - now works with the Sonoran Policy Group.

Trump has wiped the TPP, but English will be hoping that this does not mean other avenues to make doing business easier between the US and NZ will dry up.

- NZ Herald

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